Few things illustrate the frailty of human life like a strike from out of the blue by Mother Nature. Of course, we humans are vulnerable to an unexpected demise from violence inflicted by others, accidents, mechanical failures. Yet death from natural phenomena — think earthquakes, floods, mudslides, wildfires, lightning, tornadoes — possesses a special kind of torment for survivors, often illustrating in a blink man’s impotence against the raw power of the physical world.
But while hurricanes certainly are part of nature’s fury, they are also slow-rolling mechanisms of death. Modern science and meteorological technology have afforded time for preparation, including fleeing the storm, that has undoubtedly saved countless lives.
Which is why the deaths of eight elderly people — ages 71 to 99 — in a South Florida nursing home after Hurricane Irma rolled through last week is not just a tragedy, but undeniably maddening. Nature alone was not responsible for ending their frail existence.
Multiple investigations are underway to determine exactly what happened at The Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills in Hollywood. As of this writing, according to multiple news accounts, local police have obtained search warrants to determine if the seniors were victims of crime. Gov. Rick Scott has directed both the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Children and Families to also investigate the incident. U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio have asked the federal Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to review the home’s records to look for violations of federal regulations.
We do know from media reports that the facility lost power after a tree fell over and knocked out its air conditioning unit. The home reportedly had a generator and fans and portable air conditioners, but for some reason they were insufficient to adequately cool the place.
The Rehabilitation Center reportedly also notified Florida Power & Light that it had lost electricity as the storm lashed the area, but news accounts indicate that nursing homes do not have the same priority as hospitals in the hierarchy of power restoration. It was also reported that facility staff informed officials that they did not need special assistance.
Then after one patient died, and others soon afterward began to experience breathing problems before they succumbed, the depth of the tragedy came into view.
Now, it turns out, the Rehabilitation Center had a history of regulatory problems, which also is under scrutiny.
Moreover, we have learned from the Miami Herald that the failure to safeguard these folks could also be attributable to past acts far from the Broward County facility.
The Herald noted last week that the state Senate in 2006 killed off a measure, unanimously passed by the House, that would have required nursing home operators to install generators capable of running their facilities’ air conditioning systems in Irma-like events, and made state money available to them to offset some of the cost.
They did so even after more than 200 nursing home residents in Louisiana perished in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina — and despite findings that emerged after a 2006 summit at the University of South Florida, during which nursing home administrators acknowledged that a separate power grid was necessary to sustain “critical care” facilities like hospitals and nursing homes.
Former lawmakers told the Herald that utility companies, nursing home operators and even some government regulators resisted efforts to secure the power supply.
“We were going against an industry — and legislators — who don’t want to spend money if they are not addressing a crisis,” former state Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Democrat who sponsored a bill mandating generators, told the Herald. “It’s always hard to get elected officials to care about a crisis if it’s not in a headline.”
“The Legislature is horrible when it comes to everything that doesn’t have a tragedy behind it,” Gelber added. “They have one now.”
We will eventually learn the full details of the deaths at the Rehabilitation Center, and whether someone is criminally responsible.
The Rehabilitation Center says it is "devastated" and is cooperating with authorities. AHCA released a statement Friday saying, "Let's be clear – this facility is located across the street from one of Florida's largest hospitals, which never lost power and had fully operating facilities. The tragic and senseless loss at Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center is the subject of a criminal homicide investigation by law enforcement."
But given the size and power of Irma, what happened there could have struck almost any nursing home in Florida, because despite being a magnet for elderly residents, it doesn’t appear we’ve thought this issue through sufficiently. Maybe, as Gelber suggests, eight bodies is enough to make us reconsider.